Mind-Body Health

The Side Effects of Worrying—and What to Do Instead

The Side Effects of Worrying—and What to Do Instead
Few things are as unpleasant as worrying. It can leave you feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and even physically ill.

While worrying can be motivating and constructive, it is easy to overuse, draining your energy and instilling fear. Rather than use worry to drive your behavior toward a clear resolution, it can distract you, muddying up your decision-making process and prolonging suffering.

Trying to Predict the Future

When you worry about the future, which is often the case, you are literally creating a physical and emotional reaction about something that has yet to occur. Is the following situation familiar? You are unsure how a particular situation will unfold, which is anxiety provoking in itself since your brain can crave the security that comes with certainty, so you desperately attempt to fill in the gap.

But as you know, no matter how much you try, you can’t predict the future. So now your worries are two-fold: how will you fill in the gap to lessen your anxiety and what if your prediction doesn’t unfold as you had hoped?

The Side Effects of Worrying

These patterns and habits are often so hard-wired within you (as a result of genetics, environment, or both) that you don’t even realize you’re doing it. Worrying about the future becomes habitual and brings all of its unpleasant side effects with it. These effects can become more pronounced over time until, eventually, they become too distressing to ignore.

Worrying too much can affect both mind and body in a variety of ways such as:

  • Disrupted sleep
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Nausea
  • Muscle tension
  • Exhaustion
  • Irritability
  • Elevated levels of the stress hormone, cortisol
  • Difficulty making decisions
When worrying starts to feel like it’s harming you instead of helping, it may be time to take notice. Eliminating worry from your life altogether is nearly impossible, not to mention unnecessary since worry can be helpful in motivating you to prepare for a test or work project, for example. The key is to strike the proper balance between worry and ease. Excessive worrying may also signify an anxiety disorder that is characterized by significant worry about future events and fear. If your worry stays at high levels, consider a visit to a healthcare professional to discuss alternative approaches to coping with your worry.

If you can learn how to identify the signs indicating worry is harming your well-being, you can implement strategies to combat its effects. No matter how much you may have worried in the past, it’s never too late to change your approach. The following are a few tips for finding the amount of worry that best suits you.

Be More Mindful

Unless you’re able to observe and acknowledge your tendency to worry, it will be harder to stop. If worry is your automatic response to adversity, uncertainty, or general life changes—and has been for some time—it may take some time to break the habit. Becoming aware of your reactions is a good first step.

When you practice mindfulness, you become increasingly better at recognizing thought patterns, including those that do you a disservice.

  • Take a few moments each day to sit quietly and focus on your breath.
  • Observe your thoughts without engaging them.
  • If your mind begins to wander, bring your attention back to your breath.
Over time, this simple exercise will allow you to detach from your reactions and to become an observer of your thoughts.

In addition, take note the next time you find yourself in a situation that causes you to worry. What is your specific worry or concern? Do you notice any thought patterns? Do the situations that cause you to worry share any of the same characteristics? The answers to these questions can help you to prepare to take action.

Keep a Notepad Handy

When you worry, you put your brain into overtime to try and figure out solutions. You dissect a problem and concern yourself with every possible outcome. No wonder it feels so exhausting!

While focusing on the problem can cause worry, you may fear that by not coming up with a solution, you’re laying the groundwork for anxiety. You might be thinking, “If only I could come up with a solution then I could finally relax.” This feeling of urgency to quickly conjure up a solution in order to ease your anxiety can cause you to worry even more.

Instead, keep a notepad handy and write down your worries as they arise. If you’re in the middle of something important and a concern pops up, you can write it down and save it for later. Resist the urge to drop everything and focus all of your attention on coming up with a solution. This delay not only takes some of the pressure off, but it also allows you to return to the list at your leisure. Address your worries when you’re feeling calm and clear headed.

Note: Your brain typically has a harder time conjuring up solid solutions when it’s stressed and under pressure. Ever tried really hard to solve a problem only to feel yourself getting further and further away from a solution? Try tackling your “worry list” after you’ve done something enjoyable, even if it’s simply going out for a coffee. Do something that puts you in a better headspace then sit down with your list.

Make a List of What You Can and Can’t Control

Worry typically derives from a fear that you won’t be able to handle whatever life throws at you. If you aren’t confident in your ability to handle situations, you may try to control everything you can in order to feel a sense of safety and certainty. But you can’t control for every outcome because that’s simply not how life works. Life throws curveballs and, oftentimes, things aren’t what you expected they would be (which can be a good thing!).

Review your list of worries and jot down the things you can control and then the things that you can’t. Stop worrying about the things under the “can’t” column (no amount of worrying will change them anyway) and put that energy into tackling the things you can. Get specific on how you will address this side of the list and ensure your actions are realistic. Creating an action plan allows you to feel more in charge and to worry less.

These three tips will help you acknowledge your worries and enable you to better assess and manage them. It’s possible that once you’ve meditated on a worry, or written it down, that you’ll realize your concern isn’t so big after all. Or maybe you can take a large worry and break it into smaller pieces that can be addressed so that your level of worry decreases. Whatever your approach, you’re not alone—everybody worries to some extent—what’s important is that you don’t let your worries overtake you.

*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.